Monday, June 16, 2008

Column November 20, 2007

THE Victorians gave us many useful inventions without which life would not be the same.
Railways, photography, electric light and the telephone to name but a few.
And one invention we still don’t quite know what to do with – childhood.
Of course the Victorians knew how to deal with some children – up chimneys and down mines, but for the better off it was the beginning of the idea that children were somehow different to adults.
Since then we’ve been trying to cope with the idea of childhood, and our basic attitude seems to be that we wish they’d hurry up and get over it.
How we deal with children was the theme tackled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, our own Rowan Williams, recently when he suggested that the age of criminality should be raised above its present level of 10 in England and Wales.
The Archbishop said that young people were drifting into gangs because of increasing family breakdown. He added that children who commit crime are still children and should be treated as such.
He is, of course, right, and it’s just a shame so few people go to church because the message might get through a little more if they did.
A child does not get to the age of 10 and suddenly decide to put aside the things of youth and mug a few pensioners. Something has happened to him or her that has made a life of crime a better alternative to playing with his train set.
And whatever got him to that point is not his fault. It is his parents responsibility to bring him up in a decent way and it is our responsibility as a society to make sure that children whose parents are unwilling or unable to do that are relived of that responsibility at an early enough age for it to make a difference to the outcome.
But instead of doing that we quite literally pillory them. ‘Naming and shaming’ laws allow for young offenders who would previously have been cloaked in anonymity to be publicly identified, and pictured.
This is aimed at preventing further offending, by identifying the offender to the community they know that if they re-offend they will be reported to the police. That’s the theory anyway.
It kind of falls down a bit when you know that most surveys of criminal behaviour conclude that the likelihood of detection does not enter their tiny minds when they are committing their master crimes, but there you go.
I’m sure that some of these young offenders boast of their notoriety when they have been named and shamed. Others genuinely shamed might live it down after a few months when another young hoodlum takes their place in the public eye.
But for some the shame is genuine and lasts and might just act to confirm them in a life of crime that might otherwise have been avoided.
Our attitude to children is somehow skewed. If we’re not allowing tjem to drift into a life of crime, we’re cramming them through an education system focusing entirely on exam results and blind to actual learning.
My own son has just started school this year and to listen to some parents you would think the next 14 years of education is a headlong sprint and the devil take the hindmost.
If I hear another proud parent trumpet how fast their offspring are progressing compared to others I will casually mention how junior split the atom before breakfast.
As I said, we can’t cope with children being just children and so we shovel them into adulthood too early, whether it is in school or in the courts.
On top of that we have created a society where often both parents have to work and so the job of childcare is at best handed over to grandparents and at worst delegated to nurseries where there is no way in the world young children get the devoted one to one attention they would, and should, get from their parents.
And then the products of this denial of responsibility are expected to have developed some sort of moral code by the age of 10 that allows them to know right from wrong.
Who are we kidding?
We have abandoned a generation of children and we are reaping what we sowed.

I WILL mention this next story only because if I don’t some foaming at the mouth petrolhead will accuse me of hypocrisy.
The death of a pedestrian knocked down by a cyclist in Cornwall was shocking, as was the suspended sentence handed down to the young man who was riding the bicycle.
But, how many cases of cyclists killing pedestrians can you remember?
Right, just this one.
So, awful as this case was, it cannot be said that it should lead us to believe that pedestrians everywhere should fear a mad cyclist bearing down on then on the pavement.
The fact is that the reason this case made the news is that it is so rare.
Compare it to the thousands killed every year by motorists and you retain a sense of proportion.
When you look right, left and right again it is not for the bike bearing down upon you, but the badly-driven car.

THERE is, of course, one little ray of sunshine in the wintry gloom this week.
That is the prospect of England crashing out of Euro 2008 tomorrow night.
OK, Israel did them a favour and now they only need a point from their game against Croatia, but that will make ignominious defeat all the more sweet.

AND finally, I’ll mention this story, only because another foaming at the mouth petrolhead will accuse me of deliberately ignoring it if I don’t.
A man in Scotland has been given a three-year probation order for trying to have sex…with his bicycle.
That’s just wrong. There are lines that cannot be crossed and whilst I love cycling, I cannot condone wanton lust for a pushbike.
We’re already in enough trouble for wearing Lycra, we can really do without this.

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